Tone deaf

Spotted by fellow copywriter Mike Reed, who rightly comments: 'If music be the food of love, this is a famine.'

You’ll find this sign down by the Thames, on London’s Southbank. The setting explains the allusion to Shakespeare – the Globe Theatre is nearby. So you can imagine what might have happened here: A brief to create a warning notice about busking surfaces in the council’s communications department. Someone with a touch of culture flowing through their veins thinks, ‘Hmm, buskers are performers, so let’s create a friendly notice that picks up on the link to Bill, while gently pointing out that you can’t perform here.’ Hence that rather nice idea to lead with the line from Twelfth Night. Perhaps their original draft then went on something like this:

We all love music, but there are times when we all need peace and quiet too.

Unfortunately, busking can be a real nuisance for the people who live in this area.

So we ask would-be performers to please find another spot – somewhere you can play on while everyone enjoys your performance.

Thank you.

It’s not the height of poetic expression or clever copywriting, but it links the Shakespearean reference with the communications objective in an engaging way. Unfortunately, the version that made it into the public realm transforms the warm voice of culture into a crackling megaphone announcement from a crotchety, authoritarian bureaucrat. The ‘but do not play on here’ is a sharp linguistic slap, while ‘busking causes a nuisance to local residents’ seems an obscure way to ask for consideration of others. They then paste in a statement from the legal department, but this distracts from the first two points by introducing other reasons why you can’t play on – obstruction and unlicensed selling. So, in fact, the ban isn’t entirely intended to combat anti-social artistic activity, it’s about policing commercial activity in a public space too.

The design language of the sign reflects the bossiness of the words. They use hyphens instead of dashes or bullet points, and the second dash is pushed up against the word ‘busking’, so it looks like a word is missing. Bizarrely, they add a stop after the first point, but not after the second. And they start each line from a different place, instead of ranging it all left, or centering it.

The message ends with a more personal element – the name ‘Southwark’ rendered in handwriting. But another side of the council’s personality has already stamped its mark on the language. It seems a long way from the nicely expressed celebration of the area on their website: ‘Borough and Bankside has a reputation as the racy side of the river across from the City. History shows the area as a roistering quarter of theatres and taverns with rich and poor all out to party like it’s 1599.’

In Shakespeare’s time many of the locals disliked the play houses and the lively crowd they attracted. Perhaps their spirit lives on.

Tim Tim Rich writes about tone of voice, Shakespeare and Southwark Council. Search for writers
PS Thanks to Mike for permission to show his shot.

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